By Kim Mackrael

OTTAWA -- Canada's job market grew unexpectedly and the country recorded its first trade surplus in more than two years, signs the country's economy may be entering 2017 on stronger footing.

Canada gained a net 53,700 jobs in December, all of which were full-time positions, and the national unemployment rate increased to 6.9% as more people looked for work, Statistics Canada said Friday. Expectations were for a loss of 2,500 jobs and for the jobless rate to edge up to 6.9%, according to economists at Royal Bank of Canada.

Also on Friday, Statistics Canada said the country recorded a trade surplus in November of 526 million Canadian dollars ($397 million), marking the first surplus since September 2014. Economists had expected a C$1.6 billion deficit in the month.

"Both reports published today will comfort the Bank of Canada, which has had to contend with a number of disappointing data releases since early December," TD Securities economist Robert Both said in a note to clients.

TD is now calling for fourth-quarter economic growth of 1.9%, he said, well above the central bank's most recent forecast of 1.5%.

In December, Canada added 81,300 full-time positions and lost 27,600 part-time jobs. The number of people employed in jobs paying regular weekly or biweekly wages rose by 72,100, while the ranks of the self-employed, who tend to be independent contractors or freelancers, declined by 18,400.

During the 12 months ended Dec. 31, the Canadian economy added 214,100 jobs for a gain of 1.2%, marking the fastest December-to-December growth rate since 2012. Nearly all of the 2016 increase occurred during the last five months of the year, Statistics Canada said. Most of the overall gains for the year were in part-time positions.

The Bank of Canada acknowledged during its most recent rate decision in December that Canada has seen ongoing gains in employment but noted a "significant amount" of economic slack remains. The central bank expects growth of 1.1% in 2016, followed by 2.0% in 2017 and 2018.

Meanwhile, Canadian exports rose 4.3% to reach C$45.61 billion in November, their highest level since January 2016, led by an increase in exports of metal and nonmetallic mineral products. On a volume basis, exports were up 3.5% from the previous month.

"This is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of what the Bank of Canada was hoping would drive growth," said Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC World Markets.

He said it is good news that the November trade surplus was driven by higher exports -- rather than a decline in imports -- but there are concerns that increased protectionism in the U.S. could affect future Canadian exports.

"You don't want to make too much out of a month or two of better numbers, so we'll have to see how it pans out through the year," Mr. Shenfeld said.

Exports to countries other than the U.S. rose 9.5% in November, reaching a record high of C$11.96 billion. Exports to China grew more than 11% in the month, mostly from higher coal exports, while exports to South Korea, Brazil and Japan also increased.

Shipments to the U.S., where Canada sends about three-quarters of its exports, were up 2.5% in the month.

Meanwhile, Canada's imports grew 0.7% to C$45.09 billion, led by higher imports of energy products. Import volumes fell 0.3%.

Write to Kim Mackrael at kim.mackrael@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 06, 2017 13:04 ET (18:04 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.